Chasing Treasure: Part Ten
Sam grit his teeth and held his tongue, bracing himself for Rochefort’s anger.
"Really, Sam," Rochefort said with a moue of distaste. "Must you force me to be uncivilised about this whole thing? I do so hate the mess."
"Wait," Niettah said, staring at a point somewhere over Sam's shoulder. "He won't talk from that - but there's another way." Sam's relief at Rochefort's plans being halted was quickly replaced with dread. It only got worse when Niettah continued speaking. "Third ledge down, behind the rock. You'll find a blue kyrii. Wounded left shoulder and I believe cracked ribs, though I wasn't able to tell for certain. He should be easy enough to bring in."
Bannok. No, nononono -
"Kay, Ulric," Rochefort said with an indulgent smile. They didn't need any further instruction; Ulric dropped Sam in a boneless heap and left him hacking and coughing for breath on the floor.
"Niettah," he begged, searching for any sign of the kinship they'd built. "Please, not Bannok - you can't."
"It's nothing personal," she assured him in the same detached tone. "Just politics."
Somewhere unseen in the crags and rocks that lined the cave he heard the sound of fighting. Against Kay and Ulric he'd bet on Bannok any day - but when they had the drop on him? And his shoulder; Sam had noticed it was bad. The cracked ribs he hadn't known about, but the shoulder itself was pretty hard to miss. He crossed his fingers behind his back and offered prayers to every faerie he knew, but he wasn't hopeful.
When Kay and Ulric returned with Bannok's bruised form dragging behind them, Sam somehow was too despairing to be surprised.
"It's a waltz," he said hoarsely, his eyes fixed on his brother. "Three time, minor key. The Princess' waltz - you know it?"
"I know it," Rochefort said with a satisfied smile. He patted Sam's cheek condescendingly. "There, now. That wasn't so hard?"
The flare of anger Sam expected never came. He just felt numb.
"You'll let us go?" he asked. "Both of us?"
"Mmm. Perhaps. Kay, a hand?"
Of course. Of course it wasn't that simple but - Sam had played his cards. He'd given up the secret of the code, and he'd been too panicked to even think of a good lie. Kay dropped Bannok without a backward glance and Sam scrambled forward to support him.
"Hey," he whispered.
Bannok snorted in response. "How'd you like the rescue so far?"
Sam laughed wetly. "Four out of ten. Could try harder."
"Yeah, well." Bannok was silent for a moment, glaring up at the stoic Ulric. The only sound in the cave was the metallic clattering as Rochefort and Kay retrieved the horn from its marble plinth.
"He's going to take down Krawk Island," Bannok said finally. "Rochefort. The horn is a weapon, he’ll use it to rebuilt the White Horn's empire, and Krawk Island will be the first to fall."
Sam's mouth hung open. Taking over Krawk Island - it was the home of piracy. It was the only truly neutral ground, the smuggler's haven and the place to fence loot with no questions asked. It was... It was impossible to put into words what Krawk Island meant to pirates, what it represented. For Rochefort to attack it?
"He's actually mad," Sam said, reiterating an earlier statement. "He's - he can't - can he?"
"Mad?" Niettah asked, standing just the other side of Ulric. She twisted her nose in distaste, the only sign of emotion Sam had seen from her since he'd woken up in the cave. "Incurably so."
"You dare?" Ulric hissed, hefting his wing. Niettah moved faster, her hand flashing out with the glint of a dagger in her fist. Ulric dropped like a stone.
Sam continued his gobsmacked fish impression, staring at the enormous lenny's downed form with incomprehension. Bannok though just groaned. "Is there anyone you haven't betrayed?" he asked bitterly.
"Yes," was the simple answer, then Niettah was dragging them both upright. She didn't elaborate on who she might not have betrayed. Yet. Sam felt that the 'yet' was an important addition.
"The horn is a trap," Niettah explained in a hushed whisper. "As soon as Rochefort sounds it this whole place will cave in. We need to run."
"We?" Sam snarked, but he was already turning to go, Bannok's good arm slung over his shoulder. "What makes you think we'll trust you again?"
She shrugged. "Trust me or not. Rochefort won't let you go either way; this is your only chance. Take it."
Somewhere in the depths of the cave the first, melancholy notes of the Princess' waltz sounded. The walls groaned, the ceiling itself seeming to flash with hidden runes.
In the dim light of the cave it was almost impossible to see where they were going. Niettah had grabbed one of Rochefort's torches and was holding it as far above them as she could, but the light flickered and the shadows jumped and moved like living things. Sam stumbled more than once over the uneven ground, struggling under Bannok's weight.
"Move!" Niettah shouted and Sam dived. A giant stalactite crashed into the ground where he'd been a second ago, the force of it knocking him forward. Bannok steadied him, and with Niettah darting ahead to find a way out that wasn't blocked by the cave in, they ran on.
"Right, here," Bannok gasped out. "There's a passage - it's the way I came in."
She raised the torch. The passage was barely more than a fissure in the rock, but Bannok led them into it with confidence. "It's short," he promised. Niettah followed him without question, but Sam hesitated. He didn't mix well with small spaces.
There was a loud cracking sound as the rock beneath his feet began splitting open.
"Sam!" Bannok roared, and Sam grit his teeth, closed his eyes, and leapt forwards.
The rock pressed in on every side. He turned, sliding through with one shoulder first, but he could feel sharp edges digging into his ribs with each step. He felt blindly in front of him with one hand, his breaths coming shallower as the space grew smaller, he couldn't breathe, he wasn't going to make it through, he was going to be trapped in here forever -
Bannok took his arm and heaved. With a final stumble and a scrape of the rock against his back, Sam was free.
"You're out," Bannok assured him. "You're ok, you're out, just breathe."
"I hate tunnels," Sam gasped, leaning on Bannok and waiting for the world to stop spinning.
"I know. I'm sorry."
Sam shook his head, waving off the apology - it couldn't be helped, and they were out now. The damp walls of the cave were replaced with towering palm trees and hanging vines, and he could smell the sea on the wind.
Behind them, the stone mountain rumbled ominously, trembling as its insides fell apart.
"You think Rochefort will get out in time?" Sam asked. He wondered if the gelert would do the sensible thing and run or if he'd try to save the treasure.
"Probably," Niettah grimaced. "He's annoyingly good at surviving like that." She turned to Bannok. "You got your ship back, I assume?"
Bannok stared at her levelly, his cool gaze giving away none of his thoughts. Niettah returned it just as calmly.
"Who is Ami?" Bannok finally asked. Sam blinked; Ami? Little Ami, the gelert from the painting? Had he missed something here?
Niettah smiled, seemingly pleased that Bannok had worked it out.
"The Dauphinne Amelie de la Mer," she said. "The daughter of the last and greatest of the pirates to wield the White Horn. His chosen heir."
Sam's mind raced, putting everything together. The map piece in Amelie's portrait, the fact that it was her birthday that was the key to the chest they took from the Teeth, even the tune that unlocked the White Horn, the Princess' waltz.
"Amelie was meant to find the treasure," he said. Except no, that wasn't right, because the treasure was a trap. And Niettah had known the treasure was a trap which meant most likely... "The treasure was the bait, and you were supposed to lead Rochefort to it. This whole thing was set up so that Amelie could get rid of her brother."
Niettah nodded. "He never liked that his younger sister inherited everything. He has been... difficult. But for what it's worth, I'm sorry that you two got caught up in all this."
Sam snorted. "It's not worth jack."
"Then perhaps this will be." She retrieved a pouch from her waist and threw it. Bannok caught it one handed, eyes wide as he felt the weight. "Compliments of the Dauphinne," Niettah said. "It was a pleasure working with you."
Bannok tipped the pouch out into his hand. The gleaming gold of a pile of hundred dubloon coins glinted in the sun.
"There must be thousands in there," Sam breathed reverently.
Bannok laughed. "We're rich, Sammy. Cloud puffs and faerie pancakes, you'll be able to eat your entire weight in fish pops. Rich!"
A thunderous crash sounded from the caves behind them and shook the two back into the present.
"But only if we get out of here before the mountain falls on us," he amended, pouring the coins back into the pouch and tying it onto his belt.
Sam scanned the trees, searching for the best way to get back to the beach. He frowned when he noticed someone missing.
Bannok shook his head tiredly. "Who knows? She left. I guess she's got her own way off the island. Leave her, Sammy. We've got more important things to worry about."
Sam moved to support his brother, careful not to jostle his bad shoulder. "Like how we're going to spend everything. I was thinking a visit or two to Kelp restaurant, yes?"
"Or, here's a thought, we could be careful with it and not spend it all in one go."
"Ah come on, where's the fun in that? I've always wanted to spin the Wheel of Extravagance."
"Sam yes, I think you mean."
They limped towards the beach, the mountain crumbling behind them and burying the vast treasure hoard of a dynasty of pirate kings. The Silver Arkmite beckoned, and the whole world beyond that.
It was spring. The cherry blossoms were in full bloom, a thousand delicate pink flowers floating on the gentle breeze. The water in the pool was mirror-still, the lilies lying calm and undisturbed on the surface.
Two pets sat under the shade of the trees. The one was a faerie xweetok, clad in a simple green dress. The other was a gelert, her silvery-white fur seeming almost to shine in the morning sun. A biyako draped itself over the gelert's lap, striped chest rising and falling with a rumbling, contented purr.
"My brother lives," the gelert said.
The xweetok dipped her head. "He does."
They lapsed back into an easy silence, broken only by the gentle tok of the bamboo fountain.
"The two brothers?" the gelert asked.
The xweetok smiled, gentle and fond. "They are competent, but principled. With careful handling they would make excellent agents."
"Principled." The gelert turned the word over, considering it as though it were a foreign concept. "How... novel."
"They are not so bad," the xweetok assured. The gelert hmmed in response, lazily scratching the biyako behind one velvet ear.
The xweetok shifted in her seat. "Missing," she admitted.
"And the other one?"
The xweetok reached into the loose folds of her dress and withdrew a simple whistle, roughly carved and worn from use. It was short, one end broken as though it had once been longer, and the spiral form and dull ivory colour were reminiscent of a uni's horn.
The gelert laughed, a gentle and delicate sound that belayed the cold satisfaction in her eyes.
"My brother can keep that worthless bauble with my pleasure," she purred. In her hand the whistle shivered, a frisson of magic flashing down it.
The White Horn had chosen a new mistress.